Big lies, clever cons, and TOK ways of knowing, Part 2: What does storytelling do to knowledge?

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160215 scam roadsignStories have power. In the scams of con artists, they have the power to “get you emotionally transported enough that you stop asking questions, or at least the questions that matter.” So warns Maria Konnikova, whose recently published book The Confidence Game prompted my post last week, and this week. At the same time, however, stories have an enriching role in the creation of knowledge, not just in obvious areas such as literature and history but also in areas such as the sciences where we might not expect a narrative to carry us. What, then, is the role of storytelling in telling lies, and telling truths?

Today’s post is one in a four-part series on “Big lies, clever cons, and TOK ways of knowing”:

  1. Does it matter to tell the truth? February 8, 2016.
  2. What does storytelling do to knowledge? February 15, 2016.
  3. Is critical thinking utterly futile? February 22, 2016.
  4. On guard against scams! February 29, 2016. (That is, if you believe me that there is such a day this month!)

Yes, today I’d like to turn to a favourite topic of mine – storytelling. Like many other teachers, I’ve discovered the attention that lights student eyes when I tell a story in class – a case study, a story of discovery, a relevant plot summary. And, in personal terms, I confess that I abandoned this post mid-way in order to dash to the TV for this week’s episode of Downton Abbey. Stories can truly suck us in!

The story and the con

Last week I suggested three stories of “cons” to engage students, prompt reflection, and provide points of reference for discussion of the knowledge questions that arise from the “confidence game” – the calculated deception practised by liars or swindlers to gain the trust of others for their own ends.

Maria Konnikova, in her account of con artists, emphasizes the way in which swindlers use their stories to draw in the people they aim to deceive: Ferdinand Waldo Demara told tales to convince others he was a doctor (or a monk); Samantha Azzopardi concealed then disclosed what had (supposedly) happened to her to convince others that she was a vulnerable victim of human trafficking (and who would lie about that?); Bernie Madoff, through acting reliable and telling persuasive lies, lured the rich to invest their money in the largest Ponzi scheme in history. As Konnikova says,

“Stories bring us together. We can talk about them and bond over them. They are shared knowledge, shared legend, and shared history; often, they shape our shared future. Stories are so natural that we don’t notice how much they permeate our lives….

“That’s precisely why they can be such a powerful tool of deception. When we’re immersed in a story, we let down our guard… In those moments of fully immersed attention, we may absorb things, under the radar, that would normally pass us by or put us on high alert. Later, we may find ourselves thinking that some idea or concept is coming from our own brilliant, fertile minds, when, in reality, it was planted there by the story we just heard or read.”

Map knowledge and story knowledge

Clearly, the deception lies not in storytelling itself but in how it is used as a trap to catch us. Stories themselves, as Konnikova acknowledges, are a natural way for us to share our knowledge.

Indeed, the distinction has sometimes been made between “map knowledge” – knowledge of the generalized overview, frozen at a moment in time, such as our generalized scientific laws – and “story knowledge” – knowledge of specific situations presented through a particularized narrative sequence, such as case studies, historical accounts, or literature.

Konnikova notes a similar distinction between propositional and narrative thought as she surveys the role of the story in compelling belief: 

“In his book “Actual Minds, Possible Worlds,” Jerome Bruner, a central figure in the cognitive revolution in psychology, proposes that we can frame experience in two ways: propositional and narrative. Propositional thought hinges on logic and formality. Narrative thought is the reverse. It’s concrete, imagistic, personally convincing, and emotional. And it’s strong.

“In fact, Bruner argues, narrative thinking is responsible for far more than its logical, systematic counterpart. It’s the basis of myth and history, ritual and social relations. The philosopher Karl Popper “proposed that falsifiability is the cornerstone of the scientific method,” Bruner told the American Psychological Association at their annual meeting, in Toronto, in the summer of 1984. “But believability is the hallmark of the well-formed narrative.” Even scientists construct narratives. There is no scientific method without the narrative thread that holds the whole enterprise together. Stories make things more plausible, more convincing, and more fundable. Rightly or wrongly, a research proposal with a compelling narrative arc stands out. As the economist Robert Heilbroner once confided to Bruner, “When an economic theory fails to work easily, we begin telling stories about the Japanese imports.” When a fact is plausible, we still need to test it. When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.”

A story can be true, or a story can be false – but a well-told story can draw us in and persuade us. What is the role of a well-told tale, then, in areas of knowledge? What tests should we apply to a persuasive story, in our different areas, before we accept it?

Classroom discussion: ways of knowing, areas of knowledge

I’ll now offer some classroom suggestions – as always, simply to stir ideas of your own for how you would do it yourself! If you have any thoughts to share, I’d welcome your commenting at the end of this post.

First, to open discussion, ask students some knowledge questions that hark back to the “con” stories and some of the previous discussion (my post last week). Pull their ideas back into memory!:

What ways of knowing are involved in our being drawn into a story and believing it? What are the roles of intuition in swiftly connecting incidents and imagination in filling in the details? How does emotion work in our engagement? What about faith, in the sense of trusting the storyteller – or, more broadly, your source of information? What about memory? sense perception? reasoning? Is language the most important way of knowing for storytelling, or does its effect depend on other ways of knowing?

256px-The_Childrens_Museum_of_Indianapolis_-_Storyteller_Under_Sunny_Skies_clay_sculptureThen, I suggest opening discussion of storytelling in areas of knowledge by starting with Indigenous Knowledge. Shift away from stories as part of a “con” – and toward stories as a serious means of understanding and communicating. If students don’t have much familiarity with indigenous storytelling themselves, fill in some background yourself – at least enough to establish stories as significant in binding together elements of an entire worldview and storytelling as an important way of passing on knowledge of the world.  A compact summary such as this one hits many points briefly: “Many Voices”  A short video such as this one one from youtube could also be helpful in class:  kenquiethawk, “The Oral Tradition of Storytelling”

Then break knowledge, treated holistically in indigenous traditions, into specialized areas. Break the class into smaller groups to consider them: groups on each of literature, history, and the natural sciences. Provide each group with discussion questions and a time frame – and the expectation that they bring their main ideas back to share with the group as a whole. Sample discussion questions:

Literature and film:

  • Is it important for a story in a literature or film to be believable – even if it is fiction or even fantasy? How does an author make a story credible? What is the difference between “believing” a story in literature and “believing” a story in history or the sciences?
  • What besides entertainment does the story enable an author to achieve in a literary work or film? Can a fictional story convey truths?
  • What tests does a story have to pass in order to be accepted as “literature”?
  • What arts other than literature and film also use storytelling as part of their content and part their method?
  • Select an example from literature class to use as an example to illustrate your main points as you bring them back to the class.


  • To what extent does the historian draw upon people’s stories from the past as resources for his or her own work? Where does the historian find these stories, and how does he or she use them?
  • To what extent is the historian a storyteller? Is narration an essential part of historical explanation?
  • Have you noticed any examples of historians influenced in their own narrative accounts by larger narrative perspectives given by their own societies?
  • What makes one historical narration more convincing than another? What tests does a story of the past have to pass in order to be accepted as “history”?
  • Select an example from history class to use as an example to illustrate your main points as you bring them back to the class.

Natural sciences:

  • To understand science, is it important to be aware of the stories of scientists in the process of creating knowledge?
  • Nobel prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar has said, “Scientists are building explanatory structures, telling stories which are scrupulously tested to see if they are stories about real life.”  In Medawar’s description, what would be the role of hypotheses, models, and theories in scientific storytelling?
  • What makes the “story” told by a group of scientific researchers believable to the scientific peers who evaluate it? What tests does in have to pass in order to be accepted as “science”?
  • Select an example from science class to use as an example to illustrate your main points as you bring them back to the class.

As the small groups return to the larger class to present and exchange ideas, encourage students to compare the areas of knowledge in terms of each other’s questions.

NB:  Useful on the natural sciences might be the following resources – probably most useful just for you to read in advance yourself to have some of the points in mind for questions you might pose, or passages you might quote, in class discussion:

It would certainly also be possible to frame knowledge questions on the role of narration for ethics (as in last week’s post), human sciences, and religious knowledge.

Broader knowledge questions

Last, while the class as a whole still has indigenous knowledge, literature, history, and the natural sciences freshly in mind, close with some very broad knowledge questions, in order to leave students thinking about the role of narration as it runs through knowledge:

How much do stories stand on their own, and how much do they depend on other stories? Do they gain their believability and impact from being connected with others – either by being compatible with them or by contradicting them?

What follows from our believing a story? How does it affect how we think, what choices we make, and how we act?

The last question above is certainly one to which you and your students will surely find reason to return again and again in your TOK discussions of knowledge.

PS.  Feb. 19.   Further to these last knowledge questions, I think you’d really enjoy a podcast on the use of stories in marketing, with comments from adman Terry O’Reilly: “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”.  He gives some splendid examples of tourism marketing campaigns, and concludes by emphasizing the way that the storytelling element caught public attention and made the campaigns successful.  Stories catch us — and yes, they influence our choices!


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Graham Coghill, “Scientific models are tested by making predictions and checking them against real world data”, Science or not? January 17, 2012.

Nicola Davis, Iain Chambers, and Maria Konnikova. “What makes a good con artist?” podcast, Science Weekly, January 29, 2016. 30 minutes

Eileen Dombrowski, Lena Rotenberg, and Mimi Bick. Theory of Knowledge. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Diana Henriques, “Examining the Ponzi Scheme Through the Mind of the Con Artist”, Dealbook, New York Times, August 20, 2012.

Roald Hoffmann, “The Tensions of Scientific Storytelling”, American Scientist July-August 2014. Vol 102, no. 4, 250.

kenquiethawk, “The Oral Tradition of Storytelling”, youtube, May 25, 2011.

Maria Konnikova. The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time. Viking, January 2016.

Maria Konnikova, “How Stories Deceive” , The New Yorker. December 29, 2015.

Maria Konnikova interviewed by Julia Galef. “Why everyone falls for con artists”, Rationally Speaking podcast #151. January 26, 2016.   Conveniently, a downloadable transcript is provided for the entire interview.

“Many Voices”, Circle of Stories, PBS.

Steven Newton, “’And, But, Therefore’ Randy Olson and the art of Scientific Storytelling, Part 3” Huffpost, Dec 17, 2015

Terry O’Reilly, “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas”, Under the Influence, CBC radio.

John Wasik, “Inside the Mind of Madoff: When Did Scam Really Begin?”, Forbes. October 3, 2012.

The Story Behind the Science: Bring science and scientists to life. (website) Michael P Clough et al, with support from the National Science Foundation.

Stephanie Yang, “5 Years Ago Bernie Madoff Was Sentenced to 150 Years In Prison – Here’s How His Scheme Worked”, Business Insider, July 1, 2014.

image of scam warning signs, geralt, creative commons

image of storytelling doll, creative commons:


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